Living on a cul-de-sac may make you fat

Suburbia bad for your healthSometimes living in suburbia feels like just one insult after another. First we're blamed for global warming (commutes, SUVs, all that) and then we're the shame of modern urban planners (dun-colored sameness, roads that go nowhere, mini-malls and minuscule pocket parks).

Now it turns out even our cherished cul-de-sacs -- havens of "Kids at Play" signs, full-court basketball games, eternal garage sales and awkward parallel parking -- are at fault.

Professor Lawrence Frank, who has an academic chair in "sustainable transportation" at the University of British Columbia, has created quite a splash in planning circles with new research equating cul-de-sacs (or as some commenters on this post point out: "culs-de-sac") with obesity. Frank's data showed that those living in more walkable areas -- i.e. those with the most interconnected streets -- travel 26% fewer vehicle miles than those living in cul-de-sac dominant neighborhoods.

And, as walkability increased, two things decreased: air pollution (that, again) and body mass index. It seems so simple, like the old joke: The greatest cause of overweight is underwear.

Frank studied King County, Wash., but he could have been studying my community -- winner of oodles of planning awards back when people thought cul-de-sacs were not simply French for "dead end," but actually innovative. I even live on a double-ended cul-de-sac (from the air it looks like a rawhide dog bone), which I guess means I will be twice as fat.

These Rodney Dangerfields of suburbia actually have been banned in some communities. The entire state of Virginia officially snubbed them last year, when the Legislature severely limited future cul-de-sac growth. Reasons cited were traffic flow, convenience and access by emergency vehicles.

"When you have 350 to 400 miles a year of new roads you have to maintain forever, it's a budgetary problem," Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who pushed the new regulations through the Commonwealth Transportation Board last month, told the Washington Post. Virginia has had to cut more than $2.2 billion from its six-year transportation spending plan. "But it's not just about the money. It's about connecting land-use and transportation planning and restricting wasteful and unplanned development."

Girth did not seem to be on the table during the Virginia debate.

There is some hope for the many denizens of cul-de-sacs. Recently planners have been scheming ways to retrofit bike and pedestrian path breaks into the ends of cul-de-sacs, connecting them to surrounding streets. And even Frank admitted, in a previous paper he co-authored, that children may get more exercise on cul-de-sacs for the aforementioned "Kids at Play" sign reasons.
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